The lesson from Lower Merion is that China is everywhere

China lives inside all of us. It lives in the assumption that unless people are controlled, and unless their use of the Internet resource is limited, they will go crazy.

It has become routine among American Internet users, and American Internet companies, to condemn China. (Like the t-shirt? Buy it here.)

China's "great firewall" is designed to control its people, to keep away from them ideas and behaviors the government wants kept out. In other words, to enforce Chinese law.

We don't like Chinese law. I don't like Chinese law. But this attitude, that users must be controlled, that ideas and behaviors the law doesn't like must be kept from people, is very common.

The Lower Merion case is an extreme example.

People are upset over the software used to control the laptops. They're upset at the charges levied against student Blake Robbins. His suit says his school's vice principal called him a drug dealer, citing what the webcam caught him doing in his own home. (This last is disputed by the vice principal.)

What angers Boingboing is that monitored computers were required, unmonitored computers were forbidden, disabling the camera was impossible, and attempts to disable the technology were grounds for expulsion.

The FBI is investigating, and in time we will get to the bottom of this case. But while what Lower Merion was doing may have been extreme, the attitudes behind it are commonplace.

China, in other words, lives inside all of us. It lives in the assumption that unless people are controlled, and unless their use of the Internet resource is limited, they will go crazy.

Some will. Some men are honestly stupid enough to sit at their workstations looking at porn on company time. Some kids are stupid enough to think that Facebook postings are private. Some people think they can e-mail threats against other people and never take responsibility because they didn't use their names.

But you can fire the porn fan for lack of productivity. You can shame kids with their Facebook postings until their siblings wise up. You can trace the threats and sue the people who make them.

You can deal with the users, in other words. Or you can seek to control them, proactively. As employers do and as schools do. As parents are constantly told to do.

Government has interests here, too. No one likes spam or malware. Everyone wants to catch the bad guys. What tools will we allow for that, and what tools go too far? That's currently the subject of serious debate.

If we are really to engage with China over issues of Internet freedom, in other words, we should first decide whether we don't secretly agree with them.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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